While California faces multiple crises, there are encouraging signs in the coronavirus fight, with infection rates falling enough that Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that soon he will announce plans for reopening businesses that closed nearly two months ago when cases spiked.
“We are moving forward this week," Newsom said during a news conference on efforts to combat the virus and wildfires, which destroyed more than 1,000 homes and fouled the air over a large swath of the nation's most populated state.
Newsom called it a “very difficult period, where we’re battling this pandemic as we’re battling these wildfires all up and down the state of California.”
More than 100,000 people are tested for COVID-19 every day, though the wildfires have made it more difficult in some places, the Democratic governor said. Over the past week, the infection rate for those tested fell to 5.6%, a significant drop from a few weeks ago and well below the state's target of 8%.
Coronavirus Hospital Use Projections Across the Country
This interactive chart uses model data provided by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation to predict how the coronavirus will affect health care resources in different states. In states such as Florida and California, hospital bed use is projected to continue to grow into September and October. Most states have enough general hospital and ICU beds to meet demand, according to additional data from The Associated Press.
Sources: State hospital bed capacity data from the Associated Press. Model data provided by IHME. Note: The model assumes mask use continues at currently observed rates and the gradual easing of social distancing mandates continues. It also assumes the mandate would be re-imposed for six weeks if daily deaths reach 8 per million.
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC
Hospitalizations are down 20% over a two-week period, Newsom said. There are 4,467 hospitalized with the virus, the lowest figure in two months.
Orange County, the state's third most populous with 3.2 million residents, is among the latest of eight counties to come off a state watch list that tracks infection rates, hospitalizations and other metrics. Most counties remain on the list, which restricts what businesses can operate, whether religious services can be held indoors and whether schools can reopen for in-person learning.
California's second most populous county, San Diego, came off the list last week. Los Angeles County, the most populated with 10 million people and long the state's epicenter for the virus, remains on it but is showing positive trends.
Daily hospitalizations there have decreased by 45% from the peak of over 2,200 in mid-July, and average deaths have dropped from 44 to 28 per day.
If the trends continue and Los Angeles County can move toward reopening some businesses and schools, it will be essential for people to keep wearing masks and distancing, said Dr. Muntu Davis, the county’s health officer.
“Cautious reopening means we take to heart the lessons that we learned from July and move forward in a new normal of making the infection control practices part of our day-to-day lives for the foreseeable future," he said.
Newsom said he'll release guidelines by the end of the week on how and when certain businesses can reopen. Counties can open schools for classroom learning if they are off the watch list for 14 days, but it's not clear what the timeline will be for reopening businesses.
While San Diego officials have been pushing for reopening guidelines, county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher cautioned against moving too quickly, saying the county wants to avoid an “on-again, off-again” course.
“We have to proceed with a great degree of caution to make sure that we don’t backslide,” he said.
A lengthy plateauing of cases prompted Newsom to reopen virtually the entire economy in late spring, but as people moved more freely and started ignoring health officials' pleas not to gather with friends, cases spiked between Memorial Day and July 4.
Davis said health officials are aware Labor Day is approaching. Keeping infections down after the holiday is an “active discussion” among officials, he said.
Beyond schools and restaurants, the beauty industry has been clamoring to reopen indoor services. In some places, hairstylists may cut and color hair outside if they follow strict guidelines.
Fred Jones, counsel for the Professional Beauty Federation of California, said stylists know how to be safe and that salons aren't more dangerous than many other types of businesses.
“We do not believe we are at all a contributor to COVID,” he said. “Certainly, we are no more a contributor than grocery stores, dental offices and other businesses that are currently open.”
The group wants Newsom to allow hair salons to reopen for indoor services statewide, not county by county because hairstylists get their licenses from a state board. Jones pointed out that some counties in the San Francisco Bay Area never allowed hair salons to reopen, even though the state permitted it before cases spiked last month.
“A lot of Bay Area salons have not had a single day of income in over five months," Jones said.
Associated Press reporters Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed.